Russia Claims It Is Open to Peace Negotiations. Few Are Convinced.

The Kremlin could be using talks to buy time and regroup on the battlefield, experts warn.

By , a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Russian government, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Russian government, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Moscow.
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a meeting with members of the Russian government, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, in Moscow on March 10. Mikhail Klimentyev/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators met in Istanbul on Tuesday for peace talks to bring an end to the deadly monthlong war in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion sparked the largest humanitarian and refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Although both sides signaled a willingness to make concessions—including Moscow announcing plans to scale back its assault on Kyiv—top Western officials and veteran diplomats cautioned against taking Russia’s pledges to negotiate peace seriously.

“There is what Russia says, and there is what Russia does,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters during a trip to Morocco on Tuesday. “I have not seen anything that suggests that this is moving forward.”

Ahead of the talks, a Russian strike destroyed a local government building in the city of Mykolaiv on Ukraine’s southern coast, killing 12 people and injuring at least 22, according to Ukrainian officials.

Russian and Ukrainian negotiators met in Istanbul on Tuesday for peace talks to bring an end to the deadly monthlong war in Ukraine after Russia’s invasion sparked the largest humanitarian and refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Although both sides signaled a willingness to make concessions—including Moscow announcing plans to scale back its assault on Kyiv—top Western officials and veteran diplomats cautioned against taking Russia’s pledges to negotiate peace seriously.

“There is what Russia says, and there is what Russia does,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters during a trip to Morocco on Tuesday. “I have not seen anything that suggests that this is moving forward.”

Ahead of the talks, a Russian strike destroyed a local government building in the city of Mykolaiv on Ukraine’s southern coast, killing 12 people and injuring at least 22, according to Ukrainian officials.

Ukrainian and Russian negotiators met for hours in talks hosted by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Istanbul on Tuesday. Speaking at a press conference, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu characterized the talks as the “most meaningful progress since the start of negotiations,” though there were no major breakthroughs on ending the conflict. 

Although Russian forces have failed in their initial goal of seizing the Ukrainian capital and toppling the country’s government, experts were skeptical that Russian President Vladimir Putin would be willing to abandon this objective just one month into the conflict. 

“We don’t know what Putin understands about how the war is going, and I would be surprised if he was already willing to downsize his political objectives,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a senior fellow and director of the Transatlantic Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. “He’s just getting geared up on the homefront in terms of mobilizing the public for support.”

In recent days, senior Russian defense officials have indicated a shift in strategy to focus on eastern Ukraine, where analysts fear they could encircle thousands of Ukrainian troops stationed in the region, cutting them off from the rest of the country’s armed forces. 

“Part of this could be about them trying to encircle Ukrainian forces in that area, and then if that’s the case, they could push against Kyiv or other areas once again,” said Kendall-Taylor, who previously served as a senior Russia analyst at the CIA. 

Other experts said the Kremlin has a history of using peace negotiations as a guise to delay meaningful progress and notch propaganda wins, as it did in several rounds of failed peace talks in 2014, following Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and support of breakaway provinces in eastern Ukraine. 

Marie Yovanovitch, a career U.S. diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2016 to 2019, said she was a “cynic” when it came to any diplomatic talks with Russia.

“It is a well-known Russian tactic to use negotiations to change the facts on the ground,” she said Tuesday at a speaking event in Washington organized by the Cohen Group consulting firm.

While Russia has announced it is beginning a second phase of its operations in Ukraine and scaling back its military activities near Kyiv, its forces are “continuing bombing all of Ukraine” using what “seems like the same old strategy and same old terror” against civilian targets, Yovanovitch said. 

In the months leading up to the war, U.S. and European officials engaged in multiple rounds of diplomacy with their Russian counterparts, to little effect. “I think the objectives they [Russia] had in negotiations before the war could very well apply here. … It’s about buying time to regroup, reorganize, and recalculate how they want to pursue their objectives,” Kendall-Taylor said.

Still, Yovanovitch said the talks could lay the groundwork for diplomatic breakthroughs in the future. “I do think it’s hugely important the Ukrainians and Russians keep on talking,” she said. “The talking at some point will develop into real talks. But at this point it doesn’t seem to mean that Russia is negotiating” in good faith. 

Tuesday’s meeting in Turkey, a NATO member that is on good terms with both Russia and Ukraine, was the first direct talks between negotiations teams from Kyiv and Moscow in weeks. Previous talks were held in Belarus, a close ally of Moscow.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has in recent weeks indicated a willingness to talk about the future of Ukrainian territories occupied by Russia, including the Crimean Peninsula, as well as the prospect of scrapping Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO in return for robust security guarantees from the West. On Tuesday, Ukraine’s top negotiator, Mykhailo Podolyak, outlined a series of proposals on those matters, though it’s unclear how they would work in practice.

On Twitter, Podolyak indicated that Ukraine would seek to forge a treaty with an “enhanced analogue of Article 5”—the collective defense clause of NATO’s founding document—which would obligate guarantor nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany to defend Ukraine in the event of a future attack. Western countries have balked at becoming directly involved in the war in Ukraine, with President Joe Biden warning that U.S. intervention could spark World War III. 

Podolyak also outlined a Ukrainian proposal to resolve the status of Crimea through diplomatic means, though it’s unclear whether Moscow would ever be willing to surrender its control over the peninsula. 

Moscow has scaled back somewhat on demands made early in the war. On Monday, the Financial Times reported that Russia was abandoning its goal of “denazifying Ukraine” and would not object to Ukraine joining the European Union—provided it remained militarily nonaligned. 

Russia’s chief negotiator, Vladimir Medinsky, said Tuesday that Moscow’s pullback from the Kyiv region was not tantamount to a cease-fire and indicated that negotiations had a long way to go. He added that a meeting between Putin and Zelensky could be possible once a final agreement was reached. “However, to prepare such an agreement on a mutually acceptable basis, we still have a long way to go,” he said in an interview with the Russian news agency TASS. 

Medinsky’s appointment as chief negotiator for the Russian side has also raised questions about Moscow’s commitment to the talks. Medinsky is a former culture minister and an ultraconservative who, like Putin, has been accused of rewriting history for political ends.

“He is actually a propaganda guy. He is not a diplomat,” said Andrei Kozyrev, who served as Russian foreign minister during the 1990s. “That, from the beginning, brought me to think that this was not serious.”

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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